When one hears the term, “the railroad cut,” students of the Battle of Gettysburg may automatically be tempted to think of the slash in the ground extending through much of the July 1st battlefield, and the casualties it yielded. However, in purely statistical terms, the afternoon of July 15th, 1864 was also slated to be remembered near tiny Shohola, in northeastern Pennsylvania.
A force of 833 Confederates and some 125 Union soldiers were destined to become entangled in a deadly, unexpected contest in a railroad cut there. The former combatants, now prisoners and guards, were then travelling from Point Lookout Prison, Maryland, to their new home at the wartime prison in Elmira, New York. For that leg of the journey, their 17-car train travelled westerly from Port Jervis at a rate of some twenty miles an hour. Unexpectedly, they were thrown headlong against a massive, 50 car coal train proceeding easterly at only twelve. Both trains were pulled by 30-ton steam locomotives. The result was predictable, and tragic.
In the sharp, blind curve of the railroad cut, only one engineer had time to jump free prior to the impact. Given the physics involved, with the masses of material and energy in motion, the disaster was a terrible something to behold. Tons of coal, metal, and wood compressed into the open spaces and softer cavities about them – sometimes with horrific results. One Veteran Reserve Guard, Frank Evans, remembered momentarily seeing how “the two locomotives were raised high in the air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling.”
Inside the cab of the troop train, one of the engineers, a man named Ingram, was pressed against the split boilerplate by the load of wood that had been thrown forward at the instant of the crash. As Evans recalled, Ingram “was held [there] in plain sight and slowly roasted to death. With his last breath he warned away all those who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”
The official report was filed by Captain Morris Church, commander of the detachments of the 11th and 20th Regiments of the United States Veteran Reserve Corps assigned to the train. His report, dated 22 July 1864, listed 14 guards as killed outright, with 3 that died later. Confederate fatalities were initially marked as 40, plus another 8 that died later. Total dead, therefore, were figured at 65, with 93 injured. Coffins were constructed ad hoc, from the ruins of the train-cars, and the bodies buried nearby. It is worthwhile to note, however that Captain Church closed the body of his report with this caveat: “Many of the prisoners killed were so disfigured that it was impossible to recognize them, and five escaping whose names are unknown, I am unable to give you a correct list of killed.”
This bit of Victorian formalism, hinting at the gruesome nature of the accident while deliberately obscuring its details, only further documented the confusion about fatalities. Today, the combined records serve to highlight the difficulty in obtaining accurate records about those who perished in the Shohola disaster. Further complicating matters, it is thought that five quick-witted Confederates utilized the attendant chaos to escape. This has not been solidly documented, yet “teasers” remain to suggest such.
The exact number involved, therefore, often varies with the incident’s retelling. It would not be until June of 1911 that most of those killed in “King and Fuller’s Cut” were finally removed to more fitting surroundings, Woodlawn National Cemetery at Elmira, New York – their ultimate destination so many years ago. Both the Federal and Confederate soldiers now rest on opposite sides of a common monument, recalling that terrible day.
Shortly after their reburial in Woodlawn, the death total was somehow calculated at 72; yet another death report listed a total of only 60 men, even factoring in two Confederate brothers that remain buried in a nearby churchyard, and not later reclaimed.
The apparent inconsistency in these figures was never officially addressed. In his 1912 work The Elmira Prison Camp, author Clay W. Holmes offered up his own hypothesis, namely, “to presume that in the disinterring of bodies after so many years a slight error may have been made in the count, or some remains may have totally vanished.”
However, with all of this destruction, confusion, deception, and evasion concentrated in one spot, one student of the disaster noted, “It is highly possible that some of the names on the Shohola monument are those of the escapees; while some of the rebels who were killed were listed as having escaped.” Recurring flooding of the Delaware River at the original burial site has also made it made it difficult to arrive at a standard number of total casualties. In an article from the Honesdale, PA “Citizen,” dated November 3rd, 1909, entitled Shameful Neglect of Soldiers Graves, the following appeared:
It is the opinion of some people that the graves have been washed away by high water in the Delaware and no less an authority than Edward H. Mott, the author of “Between the Ocean and the Lakes, or the Story of the Erie” holds to that view, for that is what he states in the concluding sentences of his account of that wreck.
Yet, others disbelieved this. The closest home to the crash site was that of John Vogt, where “As many as twenty-five bodies were laid out until the following morning when there buried in a trench by the Delaware River.”
Mr. Vogt, and subsequently, Valentine Hipsman, of Shohola, [previously of the 151st PA, and yet another Gettysburg veteran, wounded and disabled, though not a member of the VRC, as he had lost his entire right arm,] indicated to government investigators the location of those overgrown graves.
Therefore, it is even harder to answer the secondary question: Were any of those killed in the accident veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg?
Although the names and units of the deceased are listed for the men of both sides, there are numerous errors of type and unit. This has made easy confirmation difficult. The simplest thing to do was to run the listing of units that had served in either army that fought at Gettysburg, and to proceed from there. Tracing the Federal casualties (the United States Veterans Reserves Corps guards) back up to their original Gettysburg units, and thence to their verified time on the battlefield (and potential woundings there,) was the next. The same was done for the listed Confederate soldiers of Gettysburg units, documenting their post-battle capture and subsequent placement on the train.
Following this methodology, it is possible to state that the men listed below, with a single possible exception, not only fought at Gettysburg, but later died in Pennsylvania’s almost forgotten railroad cut.
On the Federal side:
Private William H. Cornell, Company C, 134th New York, was, according to the History of Schoharie County, “born in Lisle, Broome County, March 5, 1840; enlisted in August 14, 1862. Fought in the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburgh, and was killed by a railroad collision July 15, 1864.” His General Index Card in the Archives file also carries the notation “See V.R.C.”
Private Edwin Plass, Company F, 24th Michigan, who had initially enlisted on August 8th, 1862; he joined the V.R.C. on May 1st, 1864 following his Gettysburg wounding.
Private Lyman Weatherby, Company B, 143rd Pennsylvania , who had mustered in on the 26th of August, 1862. Following his wounding at Gettysburg and recovery, he transferred to the 11th V.R.C. in November of 1863. His name appears on the Pennsylvania monument.
As this was a POW train, it seems appropriate to list a couple of the Confederates that previously fought at Gettysburg:
Private Michael Kane [or Kain,] of Captain McGraw’s Artillery Battery, Pegram’s Battalion. Kane signed on in May of 1861, and was on “detached service” during the Gettysburg Campaign, serving during that campaign as one of “Willie” Pegram’s couriers. However, he was captured at Mechanicsville on June 1st, 1864, and sent to Point Lookout, Maryland. Shortly thereafter, he was sent North for his final ride.
Private J.S. Hatch, Company H, 53rd Georgia Infantry successfully survived the Battle of Gettysburg, only to become wounded at Funkstown, Maryland, a week later. Enlisting on May 5th, 1862, “For 3 years or the war,” Hatch wouldn’t let a wounding stop him – he was back in the ranks by the time his corps transferred to Tennessee, where he was captured on November 29th, 1863.
However, in cross-referencing this soldier between the Fold 3 sourcing and Lillian Henderson’s Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, a curious set of circumstances came to light. Henderson’s listing merely concludes, “Released 1865,” while a General Index Card in the file of the Archives clearly states that he was again captured at Gaines Mill on June 1st, 1864, and that subsequently, his name “Appears on a roll of prisoners of war killed and missing (?) after R.R. accident at Shohola, Pa., July, 1864.”
What are we to make of this? Is Hatch in fact one of the few Confederate escapees of that horrible day, bearing now two terrible experiences in Pennsylvania? One other unusual fact to ponder – the accident took place in Pike County, Pennsylvania. Pike County Georgia was the point of origin of Hatch’s company within his regiment, the 53rd.
In any case, this reflects a bit of the confusion that still covers the tragic events of that terrible day, when the only real enemy had been neither Reb nor Yank, but carelessness – an intoxicated switch-thrower named Douglas Kent, in the employ of the railroad. According to The Tri-State Union, July 23rd, 1864,
“Mr. Kent is a man of intemperate habits, and had, on the night previous to the accident, been to Hawley (PA) to a ball, whence he returned on Friday in an intoxicated condition. He remained in a partial state of drunkenness during the day, and even after this dreadful calamity, he is said to have gone to another party of pleasure on Friday evening, apparently unconcerned. On Saturday morning he crawled on board the express train, and went west, since which time he has not been seen. We learn that a detective is on his track.”
Bert Barnett, Park Ranger